Warmuths pack up chili pots, head to Vegas

What are the odds? Husband and wife Brian and Rosemary Warmuth, organizers of the annual Wheeling Feeling Chili Cook-off, have qualified individually to compete in Las Vegas at the inaugural World Food Championships hosted by “Man Vs. Food” star Adam Richman in November.

Rosemary, who is the city of Wheeling solicitor, qualified in the traditional red category by earning first place in the Cincinnati All Ohio Regional Chili Competition earlier this year. She won both the red and verde (green) chili categories that day.

“That was probably the luckiest chili day of my life,” Rosemary said.

Brian, retired from West Liberty University as vice president of human resources, has been winning chili competitions for 25 years and is the only person to have won the West Virginia State Chili Cook-off three times. Based on his chili resume, he qualified for a wild card spot at the World Food Championships. In addition, as second-place winner at the West Virginia State Chili Cook-off this year in Huntington, Brian was notified he had a berth at the World Food Championships because the state chili champ would be unable to attend.

“He’s the real chilihead. He’s been cooking a lot longer than me,” Rosemary said. But Rosemary is no culinary slouch, having won many chili titles as well as twice competing in the finals of the renowned Pillsbury Bake-off.

While it seems unlikely a husband and wife would both qualify for an international chili contest with only 60 competitors in all, World Food Championships spokesman Jeff Morris said “it’s a little bit more common than you might expect.”

“The soul of chili kind of runs through the family,” Morris said. “One person catches the bug and the rest of them pick it up.” The Warmuths are not the only chili family that earned individual spots. One family from southern Ohio has four separate competitors, he noted.

Slinging chili on the world stage is both an honor and a challenge. The Las Vegas event brings together the best of the best, Morris said, from the three top chili sanctioning bodies- the International Chili Society, the Chili Appreciation Society International and TOLBERT (named for Texas chili legend Frank X. Tolbert).

“What better place than Vegas to hold the World Food Championships? Vegas is all about competition,” Morris said.

And chili is only one item on the competition menu. The other categories include the best of barbecue, sandwiches, burgers, recipes, side dishes and chefs. The final round brings the winners from each category to “The Final Table” at Caesars Palace where the judges pick the grand prize winner.

The Warmuths said they are thrilled about attending the event.

“It’s going to be a really fun time. I’m kind of looking forward, as a foodie, to sneaking away and going to see what other people are doing and sampling their food,” Rosemary said.

In addition to Richman, celebrities who will be making appearances include Marc Murphy of the Food Network’s “Chopped,” dessert specialist Chris Hanmer, “Barbecue Pitmasters” star Myron Mixon, well-known Hollywood chef Eric Greenspan, former Bon Appetit magazine editor-in-chief Barbara Fairchild and others.

The logistics are challenging. Brian and Rosemary each have to bring all their own pots, utensils, measuring implements and ingredients. Well in advance, they had a couple boxes packed with essentials to be shipped to Bally’s Las Vegas, where they will be staying. All cooking must be done on site.

“As long as I have on the plane with me my spice kit and my frozen meat – God forbid they lose that bag – I’m OK. I have what I call a ‘chili checklist’ and I’ll be checking it twice,” Rosemary said.

Brian and Rosemary both use a blend of chili spices that Brian concocted and has had commercially packaged under the name Big Bunny. The spice blend and their Big Bunny hot sauces are sold at Pepper’s in Key West, which is where they got the idea for packaging it.

“(Rosemary and I) use pretty much the same spices,” Brian said. “Our chili recipes are similar, but there are nuances.”

“Sometimes Brian’s has more of a hot and smoky flavor than mine. … Sometimes I think mine has more of a beefy flavor,” Rosemary said. “Normally, the difference comes down to the way we have tweaked it that day.”

They each have to create a traditional red on the first day and a freestyle or anything-goes chili on the second day. They must prepare two extra gallons of freestyle for the People’s Choice round. Both are still mulling ideas for their freestyle submissions.

The couple said they enjoy the camaraderie of the chili circuit as well as competing against each other.

“It always adds a little bit of fun. We have a friendly rivalry. As far as I’m concerned if we have a winner in the Warmuth clan, that’s a winner!”